A concentrated course on the New Testament canon

Here’s a profitable way to spend 3 hours of your time: listen to these three lectures by Michael Kruger:

  • Origin of the canon (length 46:04)
  • Date of the canon (length 50:18)
  • Contenders for the canon (length 46:09)

I strongly suggest listening when you’re mentally alert as he packs things in very tight.

Regular readers of this blog may know I’ve read some extracanonical material (Maccabbees, the Protoevangelium of James, the Patristics). I was especially helped by Dr Kruger’s comments in the third lecture on these and similar material.

The Q&A session (length 28:40) is excellent, not only because the questions are good, but also because the questioners used a microphone 😉

To take in the same material at your own pace drop by Dr Kruger’s blog, Canon Fodder, and read the posts in the series 10 Misconceptions about the NT Canon and 10 basic facts about the NT Canon that every Christian should memorise.

3 professors of New Testament crammed into one blog post

Just some links to stuff I’ve come across, in no particular order:

Reading the Protoevangelium of James

The Protoevangelium of James  (or the Infancy Gospel of James) is one of the documents from early Christianity that didn’t make it into the New Testament. The author claims to be James the brother of Jesus and the gospel gives Mary’s back-story. As the document is dated to 140-170 A.D., it is unlikely that James penned it.

Before I get to my observations on the Protoevangelium, some wise words from an expert. Simon Gathercole gets paid to read old manuscripts (and to do other stuff, I’m sure). At a recent conference, he and a colleague gave a talk titled The Historical Trustworthiness of the Gospels in which he gave advice on bad and good arguments regarding the extra-canonical gospels.

Points to avoid:

  1. Don’t say that they’re all gnostic. Some are, some aren’t.
  2. Don’t dismiss them on the grounds that they’re weird. Matthew 27:52-53 is also weird
  3. Don’t exaggerate the date of the texts, saying that they’re later than they’re taken to be

Points to make:

  1. The text of these gospels is not secure. In most cases, we don’t have their original Greek wording.
  2. There is a generation gap between the four canonical gospels and the apocryphal gospels. By the time the latter get written there were no eyewitnesses, no contemporaries of Jesus
  3. The apocryphal gospels display a cultural distance from 1st-century Palestine. They don’t pass the tests of knowledge of geography, personal names, numismatics, etc
  4. They also show a theological distance from the Old Testament and 1st-century Judaism, drawing more often on Greek and Egyptian mythology

I had read the Protoevangelium before hearing this, and these were my take-aways:

  • While the author is familiar with Old Testament material (e.g. Numbers 5:11-31) and the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke, he or she could have done more research. Which areas of the temple were accessible to non-priests, let alone women? Who is the Zechariah Jesus refers to in Matthew 23:35? I’ll leave it to you to read the Protoevangelium and see for yourself how these questions are answered.
  • It is plainly clear why God chose Mary to bear Christ: she was the most pure of all the undefiled virgins in Israel at the time. The divine initiative isn’t based on grace.

And so, unexpectedly, reading this extra-canonical book left me with a greater appreciation for the canonical gospels. For in them we see God in the person of Jesus reaching out to miserable undeserving sinners—Zacchaeus, the thief on the cross, etc.—and freely giving them a place in His eternal kingdom. Sadly, I don’t get that from the Protoevangelium of James.

How long did the eyewitnesses to Jesus’ life live?

Towards the end of the video I embedded in my last post,the speaker was asked a question regarding the life span of the eyewitnesses to the accounts told in the NT gospels. Dr. Craig  Blomberg tackles this question in his blog post titled, Did None of Jesus’ Disciples Live Long Enough to Write a Gospel? 

The claim is that the average life expectancy in ancient Israel was about 40 years, which would mean that the disciples would have been long past this age by the time the gospels were written. Dr. Blomberg has this to say:

When was the last time anyone reflected on the meaning of the word “average”? The average age of Denver Seminary students in recent years has been about 29. But we have oodles of people in their thirties, forties, fifties and even a few in their sixties. How can this be? Because the single biggest cluster of students, age-wise, are in their early to mid-twenties. That’s how averages work.

So even if you didn’t know a whit of history about the first-century, you ought to recognize the argument fails right out of the gate. But if you do realize from the study of any culture of any point in time prior to the twentieth-century West, that large numbers of children died in infancy or childhood, then you’d realize that an average life span of forty would mean more people significantly older than 40 than is true in the U.S. today when the average life span of people is late 70s and yet almost no one lives more than thirty years beyond that average.

He then goes on to apportion blame to biblical illiteracy. He uses John 8:57, 1 Timothy 5:9 and Luke 2:36 to show that some people at least had long life-spans, even by today’s standards. What if you don’t trust the Bible? Glad you asked. Dr. Blomberg suggests you type ‘age of Roman emperors’ into your favourite search engine and see how long they lived.

Do read the entire post, and if you’re a Christian, don’t let your faith be shaken by such questions!

Good reasons to believe the NT gospels are true

Watching the video below was probably the most enjoyable 1-hour stretches of my life this year (oh, what a sad sack I am :))
In it Dr. Peter J. Williams asks and answers the question, “Are the gospels based on eyewitness testimony?” The consensus among Bible scholars, both conservative and sceptical, is that the gospels weren’t written in Israel/Palestine (conservatives, though, are more likely to place Matthew in Israel). Seeing the gospels weren’t written in the land, how much do they know of it?

Dr. Williams puts the gospel writers to the test on their knowledge of:

  • Personal names: The popularity of names changes with time. Do they get the right names and in the right proportions?
  • Geography: Do they demonstrate familiarity with place names?
  • Botany: Do they get the right plants in the right places?

In the first two tests, he also compares the biblical gospels to the apocryphal ones. The results are quite illuminating. To wrap up, he brings the tests together in examining the feeding of the 5,000.

The video includes not only Dr. Williams’ priceless facial expressions, but also his presentation slides. If watching 1 hour of video doesn’t work for you, here’s an audio recording of the same talk at another venue (length 57:00):

You decide: were the writers of the gospels conspiratorially clever or were they simply recording what eyewitnesses had seen and heard?

If you’d like to listen to Peter Williams talk on the correct transmission and translation of both the Old and New Testaments try Can we Trust Our Bibles? from the Next 2011 conference (length 1:29:02).

Why historians (should) take the resurrection seriously

First, if you’re not a historian, why should you take the resurrection of Christ seriously?

Now on to historians.
The following aren’t historical proofs, but compelling reasons for not discounting the resurrection of Christ as myth:

  1. There was no cultural expectation or precedent that would have led to the invention of the belief in resurrection.
  2. The belief in the resurrection didn’t develop slowly as legend, but was part of bedrock Christian belief from very early on.
  3. (Details in the video below)

  4. There was almost certainly an empty tomb. The dispute in antiquity was how it got that way, and not whether it was empty or not.
  5. There was a significant number of men and women who put themselves forward as witnesses for the resurrection, and many died defending it.

Given these pieces of information, why would a person not believe in the resurrection? Because if there is a God above the laws of nature, He makes a claim on our lives.

“The Bible is full of mistakes!” (4 of 4)

This post, continued from yesterday, is based on a talk given by Dr Daniel Wallace.

In these videos, a different scholar takes on the theme of this post:

Now back to our scheduled programming:

2. What kinds of variants are there?

There are over 400,000 of them. But 99% of them don’t matter: movable nu; inconsistent use of  the definite article before proper nouns (e.g. “the Jesus”); varying word order (there are 16 ways of saying “Jesus loves Paul” in Greek that don’t affect the basic meaning). [See this previous post for a more detailed explanation.]

If you think about it, we’ve got about 140,000 words in the Greek NT and 400,000 variants, which comes to about 3 variants per word. As seen in the example of “Jesus loves Paul” above, a three-word sentence could potentially have hundreds of textual variants; 140,000 words could produce tens of millions of textual variants. With that view, 400,000 variants aren’t that many.

Less than 1% of our variants are meaningful and viable. And because there are so many manuscripts, most scholars would agree that there’s no need for conjecture. The hypotheses are testable.

An example of a meaningful and viable variant is found in Revelation 13:18. One 5th century manuscript has the number ‘616’. This was disregarded until recently when a thumb-size fragment of Revelation was rediscovered—the oldest manuscript on Revelation 13 we have—which also says ‘616’. We don’t know what John wrote, but we know that whether the number of the beast is 666 or 616 doesn’t change core Christian doctrine. No essential truth is impacted by any viable variant. Continue reading

“The Bible is full of mistakes!” (3 of 4)

These are my notes on a (very engaging) talk given by Dr Daniel Wallace ( length—42:18). Some material overlaps with my last two posts.

Is what we have now what they had then?

We don’t have the original New Testament manuscripts. We don’t have the copies of the originals. We don’t even have copies of the copies of the copies of the originals. Can we trust what we have today?

When thinking of the reliability of the manuscripts, we should avoid two attitudes:

  • Total despair, that we can’t affirm Jesus’ deity, the resurrection, the virgin birth, etc
  • Absolute certainty. Scholars don’t always agree on what the original text says, hence the marginal notes in modern translations.

1. How certain are we about the wording of the NT?

Not only do we not have the original NT manuscripts, but we also have between 6-10 differences per chapter for the closest manuscripts. Multiply that by all the chapters, and we have a problem. There are exactly 138,162 words in the Greek NT and about 400,000 textual variants. We have so many variants because we have so many manuscripts: over 5,700 in Greek (and counting) and over 10,000 in Latin. The earliest complete NT is from around 350 A.D.—the Codex Sinaiticus.

If we lost all the Greek and Latin copies, we have 10-15 thousand manuscripts in other languages (Syriac, Armenian, Old Church Slavonic, Georgian, Ethiopic, etc). And if we lost all those manuscripts, we’re not left without an NT, because of the patristic writers. The patristics  quoted the 7,341 NT verses over a million times. We could reconstruct the entire NT, with the exception of a half-dozen verses, from the church fathers up to the fourth century. So even though we don’t have the original documents, we have a vast richness of documents. Continue reading

“The Bible is full of mistakes!” (2 of 4)

This post, continued from yesterday, is based on an interview with Dr Daniel Wallace.

Are there a lot of differences and variations in the text between the manuscripts, and do these pose problems as to the reliability of the NT?

The massive number of manuscripts inevitably produces a massive number of variants. These  include omissions, additions and spelling mistakes. The majority of these textual variants [technical term for the differences] are inconsequential or nonsense errors made by inattentive scribes.

The most common variant is what is called the movable nu, the letter ‘n’ at the end of a word when the next one begins with a vowel. Sometimes the movable nu is present, sometimes it is omitted [I, Nelima, think a contemporary example would be the difference between people who say “an historic moment” and those who say “a historic moment”]. Another common variant is the spelling of the name John in Greek: sometimes it has two n’s, sometimes one. Dr Wallace believes that 75-80% of the textual variants are of this sort—they don’t change anything.

The next largest category are those variants that make no translational difference. These include word-order changes  and synonyms. For example, you can say “Jesus loves John” in 16 different ways in Greek and still have it translate the same way in English. As for synonyms, you may find ‘Lord’ and ‘Jesus’ used interchangeably: both terms refer to the same person.

The third largest category is made up of meaningful variants that aren’t viable. This means that they impact the meaning of the text in some way, but they don’t have a pedigree to show that the variance goes back to the original text. If one manuscript has a variance seen in no other manuscripts, then it is placed in this category.

The fourth category is of those variants that are both meaningful and viable. Not more than 1% of all variants fit into this category. At least 99% of the NT is beyond reasonable doubt as to the original wording of the text. Continue reading

“The Bible is full of mistakes!” (1 of 4)

That’s what someone said to me not too long ago. My response was, “Such as?” In addition to being ignorant, I was neither gentle nor respectful (1 Peter 3:15-16).  I’ve gained some technical knowledge;  working on my heart won’t be quite as easy 🙂

Today and tomorrow I’ll post my notes on an interview (length—53:02) with Dr Daniel B. Wallace, who studies NT manuscripts for a living. Dr Wallace travels around the world taking high-resolution digital photographs of ancient manuscripts and making them available to scholars, as part of his work with the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts.

If you’re ADD-inclined here’s two brief videos:

If you’re still reading this, here we go!

Continue reading